The Rutles – history in the re-making

The awesome foursome, the pre-fab four, Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry, yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s the Rutles, putting the backbeat back into Birmingham – lock up your grandmothers baby! Steve Beauchampe reports. 

51 years since Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry were besieged inside the Town Hall by hordes of screamagers during the Birmingham leg of a national pop package tour that also featured such Rutlandbeat legends as Gerry and the Peacemakers and Swinging Blue Jean – a highly liberated and foul-mouthed comic chanteuse – the Rutles returned to the second city to remind us what made them the biggest and most forgettable band of all time.

For it was here in June 1963 that the group had to be smuggled into the building disguised as policewomen (and smuggled out again afterwards dressed as usherettes). Well, not exactly here, in Row D of the stalls where my seat is tonight, but a few yards away round the back of the building at the stage door. In the fevered atmosphere of that late spring day excitable fans smashed a dressing room window and there were repeated attempts to charge the stage during each of the Rutles two near-inaudible sets. But speakers and PA systems have improved a lot these last fifty years meaning that the audience can now hear the group without being forced to join them onstage in order to do so.

And what a collection of classics the band serves up. During an almost two hour-long set the Rutles trawl through their entire career, from the formative Hamburger days of Goose Step Momma to the rooftop rock finale that was Get Up And Go (immediately following which they got up and went from the roof of Rutle Corps, first to their respective lawyers, then off into history, hasbeens in limousines).

After 44 years, during which time Ron Nasty and Barry Wom have been spied but fleetingly, Stig O’Hara not at all and Dirk McQuickly incessantly, it’s good to report that although Ron and Barry may have filled out a little, their trousers are still as tight and pleasingly contoured as they ever were. Dirk and Stig meanwhile are almost unrecognisable from their 1960s personas, although their trousers are holding up remarkably well too. The band is augmented, not by session keyboardist Billy Chorley, who joined them for several tracks on their final two studio albums, Let It Rot and Shabby Road, but by multi-instrumentalist Mickey Simmons, his presence allowing the Rutles to perform many of their later period tracks which were previously thought impossible to reproduce live, especially by people who had never heard of orchestras and brass sections.

Chart toppers such as It’s Looking Good, Hold My Hand and I Must Be In Love formed the soundtrack to Rutlemania, but the band aren’t afraid to throw in regular offerings from their mid-1990s Archaeology project of previously unreleased material. They even open with We’ve Arrived! (And To Prove It We’re Here), the quality of which leaves one open-mouthed at quite how Nasty and McQuickly were capable of writing such material, but also grateful that they held back from releasing it for three decades.

Good Times Roll features what is surely one of Barry’s best ever drum solos, but With a Girl Like You really drives the fans wild as they croak along, throw tea bags and wave their walking sticks above their heads. You can quite understand why Town Hall officials have closed off the entire circle and balcony, lest fans topple over the edge in their excitement (or simply lose their balance due to infirmity).

Ouch! sounds even better tonight than it did on the Live At The Hollywood Bowls Pavilion album and leads into a mid-period Rutles section, including material from the Rutle Soul and Revolve Her LPs, along with Living In Hope, Barry’s country-tinged homage to unrealistic optimism.

Another Day is the type of song that Dirk McQuickly once used to knock out in his tea break and it’s followed by Piggy In The Middle from Tragical History Tour; possibly the Rutles most ambitious song, Nasty is thought to have written it whilst reading Lewis Carroll upside down and backwards whilst listening to Val Doonican’s cover of the Byrd’s Eight Miles High.

“We’ve been through the 60s and we’re going through them again now.” quips Nasty, attired in a white suit not dissimilar to the one that he famously wore on the Shabby Road cover. They breeze through Love Life, Shangri-La (though it lacks the recorded version’s four minute chorus and fade out) and Doubleback Alley.

But it’s Cheese and Onions, the inspiration and principal lyrics for which Nasty famously got off a crisp packet during a heavy PG Tips drinking session one evening at Stig’s house, Get Up And Go, All Things Must Pass (a song Stig wrote while lying in bed suffering from gallstones) and Back In ’64 that brings down the curtain on proceedings, though fortunately not on the band, Barry being nifty enough to dive off his stool just as a metal rail lances his skins.

The lights go up and I look around; women are sobbing, men are reduced to jibbering wrecks, sound engineers twiddle knobs randomly as their eyes glaze over, roadies are lovingly caressing guitars and staring at the heavens. Was it the music? The effects of the tea? Perhaps it was the trousers? Who knows and who cares, it was the Rutles man…sure, they didn’t play my personal favourite, A Day in the Lifeboat, but as veteran dog loving DJ Murray the Canine might say: “They’re (still) what’s happening baby!”